The Black Prince is a film about Maharaja Duleep Singh and the British Empire, set in the late 1800s. It is based on real life events. Duleep Singh, the heir to Ranjit Singh’s Sikh kingdom in Punjab (which covered parts of both present day Pakistan and India), was taken from his mother, Maharani Jind Kaur, by the British when he a child and sent to England in 1848. His kingdom was taken over by the British Empire, its wealth sold or appropriated (including the Kohinoor Diamond), his mother and other family members imprisoned, exiled or killed. Duleep Singh was raised in England, as a Christian and as an English “gentleman” by his guardians, Dr. and Lady Login. He became a favorite of Queen Victoria and moved in the royal circle, where he was known as “The Black Prince.”
This film is about what happens after. It is about his political transformation from The Black Prince to Maharaja Duleep Singh and his relationship to the British Empire. It is both an individual transformation as well as a political transformation, in the sense that it is about his consciousness of the political as well as about the rising resistance to British colonialism in the Indian Subcontinent and other parts of the Empire in the late 19th century.
This political transformation is relevant today for what it tells us about the political subjectivity of diasporic South Asians in relation to whiteness and colonialism, and for what it tells us about the links between colonialism then and coloniality today.
Duleep Singh was converted and raised as a Christian by his guardians, who believed firmly in the “rightness” of their well-meaning beliefs and by extension, their role as Christian saviors of this “native” Indian boy. In one scene, Queen Victoria invites him to join her in prayer in her personal chapel, illustrating the links between religion and empire. Alongside this Christian upbringing is an erasure of his visible Sikh identity; his hair was cut short, he didn’t wear the turban or the kara. He did, however, have a neatly trimmed beard, which remained constant throughout his adult life.
As an honorary English aristocrat-gentleman, religion and racialization work together to define his position as a colonial subject in England. It is the pole from which his political transformation begins. This awareness is instigated by his mother, the Maharani, whom he finally succeeds in meeting as a young man and brings back to live with him in England for the remaining years of her life. She tells him of his royal heritage and family history. Most importantly, she reminds him that the British are an Empire, instigates in him an awareness of the colonial-political.
Although it appears stilted in the film, this increasing political awareness is part of his becoming a Sikh. It is a political process as much as a religious one. It requires a shift in consciousness of what it means to be a colonized and colonial subject, albeit a wealthy one. Where before he has seen only the well-meaning kindness of his English guardians and affection from Queen Victoria, he now also sees that both are part of the violence of the colonial empire, which took his wealth, separated him from his family and then told him that it was all for his betterment.
Through a series of life events, he reaches the other pole, choosing to let go of his honorary whiteness and English loyalties, including his English family, in order to reclaim his Sikh identity. As an adult, he reverts back to Sikhism in preparation for returning to the Subcontinent and reclaiming his throne and kingdom. He also adopts a visibly Sikh religious identity: he grows his hair and wears the turban.
Not surprisingly, the British refuse to recognize this political and religious conversion and ignore his claims to his land and wealth in India. They deploy the full strength and power of the Empire upon him to persuade, bribe, deflect, threaten and ultimately arrest and exile him. To make the story short, when he eventually dies in 1893, unable to achieve his dream of reclaiming his Sikh throne, the British Empire buries him as a Christian in England. He is still interred there today, though there is a lawsuit pending to repatriate his remains to India.
This would be a quaint story, if not for its resonance for the South Asian diaspora today. Although this film is directed towards diasporic Sikh and Indian audiences, it also has resonance more broadly for racialized South Asians living in the west, who collectively experience whiteness as non-white minorities.
The telling of this story today is a political act in the context of coloniality, even if technically the British left the Subcontinent 70 years ago. It is significant that this film was made by Kavi Raz, a British director of South Asian heritage. The main characters of the film, the Maharani (played by veteran actress Shabana Azmi) and Duleep Singh (played by Punjabi singer Satinder Sartaj) both speak in Punjabi, emphasizing that the telling of this story is for a South Asian audience rather than a white one (although there are English subtitles for non-Punjabi speakers within that South Asian audience). This film has also been marketed and promoted primarily in the “ethnic media” of South Asian diasporic communities, rather than the mainstream entertainment media.
Released less than a month before the 70th anniversary of Partition and its attendant Pakistani and Indian Independence Days, respectively, this film has mixed messages. On one hand, it could be a reminder of the violence of British colonialism and its contemporary resonance for diasporic South Asians. On the other hand, it could also be a positive reminder of the value of South Asian roots, family, and heritage as politically distinct. Its corollary may be that despite Independence, we all still live in a postcolonial world.